Historic cemetery puts limits on canine access.

If District residents want to be buried near the likes of John Philip Sousa and Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, they may soon be able. The group that runs historic Congressional Cemetery is making plots in the nearly 200-year-old burying ground available to the general public.

But if you want to walk your dog in Congressional Cemetery, the bar will be higher. Since late summer, there’s been a waiting list for the privilege.

The 32-and-a-half acre site at 1801 E St. SE, where canines can run untethered by the grave of J. Edgar Hoover, has grown to be something of a popular attraction over the years. The Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery (APHCC), which manages the site, registers dog-walkers for an annual fee of $125 per family, plus $25 for each dog. Despite the fee, demand became so great that the association voted last year to cap the number of families at 225. This summer, the board reached that mark and started keeping a waiting list.

“It may seem like an arbitrary number, but they had to set a limit,” says office assistant Joseph Lockley, the association’s only paid employee, who mans the cemetery’s gatehouse office part time. “There was just an overwhelming number of dogs.”

The population of dog-walkers has doubled in the past three years, says Patrick Crowley, recording secretary of the APHCC board. The cap, he says, was necessary to “protect the privilege” and “make sure the place doesn’t become overrun.”

Would-be dog-walkers are asked to fill out an application form listing their dog’s name and breed, and slots are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Lockley estimates that there are now about 20 dogs on the waiting list.

Spots will open up when a membership goes unrenewed, or when owners notify the association that they have moved away or the dogs have died.

“Many of the dog owners are very passionate about this place,” says Peter MacPherson, who walks his three dogs there regularly. “Especially since police began cracking down on leash laws in [nearby] Lincoln and Stanton Parks.”

It wasn’t always so busy at the cemetery. Victor Romero says that when he first started bringing his Weimaraner to the cemetery, in 1987, he would get spooked if he heard other footsteps. “There was just no one here back then,” he says. “It was eerie.”

But today, a Monday evening, there are about 35 dogs milling along the carriageways between the graves, sniffing tombstones, and nuzzling each other. The dog-walking set has played an active role in reviving the cemetery from a state of neglect. Crowley says that when he first started walking his own dog, a Saint Bernard named Gretta, at the cemetery, the grass was knee-high and Gretta kept eating muck out of the gutters. So, he says, he began shoveling the gutters himself, and eventually he asked to join the board.

Now, more than two-thirds of the APHCC’s 300 fee-paying members are dog-walkers, Crowley says; last year, dog-owners’ membership and per-dog fees raised some $40,000 for the cemetery.

“The dog-walkers have a vested interest in taking care of the cemetery,” Crowley says. “They’re very appreciative of the privilege of having somewhere like this to go.”

Because the cemetery’s administration office is manned only part time, the dog-walkers play a role in noticing newcomers and policing the grounds. Crowley says some of the regulars act as an unofficial welcoming committee, greeting unfamiliar faces and making sure to “let them know it’s a private-property place, and you have to be a member to walk your dog here.”

Some recent transplants to the neighborhood are disappointed by the new restrictions. “There should be a place in the city where dogs can be free and off the leash, and be safe and play with other dogs,” laments one disappointed dog-lover, who learned earlier this fall that she would have to wait for a spot for her German shepherd. “It’s hard for us, now that we’re living in Capitol Hill, to get over to Rock Creek Park.” CP